(Originally published in The Federalist)
Last week, The Cut profiled nine women about “the Moment They Knew Their Marriage Was Over,” noting, “as painful as it may be” sometimes divorce is “exactly what you have to do.” It’s true that the marriage challenges adults face are often weighty. But what both The Cut and our culture largely ignore is the life-long cost divorce inflicts on children, preferring to believe that what children want most is “happy” parents rather than parents who work to stay married.
In reality, many children feel their parent’s divorce is one of the most devastating events in their life, an event that damages their own self-perception and hinders their ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. The Federalist spoke with nine children, whose names have been changed, about their lives in the moments and years following their parents’ announcement that their marriage was over.
My mother told me she was divorcing my father when I was 17 years old. My brother had already gone to college, so I was alone. My first reaction was “I just want the fighting to stop.” I thought the divorce would bring relief, I had no idea what the impact of the dissolution of our family would bring.
Both parents went on with their lives, and I was left alone to figure things out on my own. Our house was sold, I went off to college, and felt devastated I had no family or home to go back to anymore.
I couldn’t reconcile the fact that half of me is mom, half of me is dad, and if they hate each other, how can they possibly love me completely, as they can see the other person they hate in me? I felt unlovable and completely abandoned. My relationships have always failed because I was waiting for the “shoe to drop,” convincing myself no one can love me and no one wants to be around me for too long. — Samantha, 59, customer service, Michigan
When I was 11 years old, I came home from Vacation Bible School, and my mother told me she was moving out and divorcing my dad. She knew that I was aware of her affairs. I felt dirty, like I was guilty by association. It made me incredibly insecure when anyone said I looked like her/reminded them of her. It alienated me from that side of my family. — Ava, 23, secretary, Minnesota
I was 5 years old when my parents got divorced. To be honest, I don’t recall a moment they sat my sister and I down and told us. We just remember Dad being gone for months at a time before he came back into town and I started my visitation.
A court system chose the days of the week I’d see my dad, and the days of each week I’d see my mom. I remember feeling unstable and confused. As I packed my belongings in a bag for a weekend with Dad I didn’t understand why my sisters weren’t coming. That’s when I found out they both had a different dad. My dad had raised them for most of their lives, and suddenly it was as if they weren’t a part of him anymore.
Deep grief filled my little body as I mourned not having access to my dad Monday to Friday. I cried myself to sleep Friday to Sunday when I couldn’t have access to my mom. I had separation anxiety from my mom, so one time my dad sent the cops to pick me up when I didn’t want to go.
Both of my parents jumped into serious relationships shortly after the divorce. Dad was remarried within a year, and I felt replaceable. Each step-parent brought their own dysfunctional dynamic. To this day I struggle with anxiety and PTSD from the abandonment and helplessness I felt. — Chapman, 31, project management, Utah
I was 19 with a child of my own and had already moved out; my brother was 15 and my sister was 14. We were all devastated by my parents’ divorce. Dad eventually met a new woman and relocated to another city with her. My siblings and I haven’t seen our dad in over 15 years. We never in our wildest dreams imagined a life without him in it.
My brother is now an alcoholic and very bitter. My sister is a drug addict who at 30 years old still cries herself to sleep because she misses her dad so much. My mom deeply regrets the divorce and what it did to her kids. She has shared that she wishes she would have fought harder for her marriage. — Rachael, 34, bookkeeper, California
My parents were divorced when I was an infant, and I never knew what it was like to have a father in my home. On the occasions I would visit my dad, it was awkward and he didn’t show normal fatherly attachment. I always feel like a second-class citizen in my father’s home.
I remember when my mom seriously started dating someone I was terrified of them getting married, as my 8-year-old brain thought people wouldn’t know she was my mom if we had different last names.
As a teen/adult I craved male affection to a fault. Now as a married woman, it is a huge learning curve to know what to expect of my husband and to watch him be a father and to learn to be a wife with no example other than movies. Therapy and a church family have helped me to heal, but I still feel the sting. — Jennifer, 29, loan processor, Indiana
I found out my mother was leaving my father when I was 11. She picked my brother and I up from school and took us to a different house, saying, “This is where we live now.”
I alternated between my parents’ houses until I was 15, when my mother moved in with her new boyfriend and my brother and I had to live with my father, who couldn’t handle working full-time and raising us on his own and was prone to fits of anger.
I used marijuana, alcohol, and pornography to cope with my emotions for many years, even though I became an evangelical Christian at 17 and eventually became a Catholic at 25. Thankfully, the teachings of the church have helped me process my experiences, and grace is healing my heart.
My relationships with each of my parents, and my brother, are quite superficial today. I don’t discuss personal matters with them much and feel a great distance between myself and them. — Gabriel, 27, political staffer, Australia
I was 24, and it turns out my mom was having a 9-year-long affair and my dad said that he felt like God told him it was time to get a divorce.
Even though I was an adult, I was absolutely devastated. I felt like everything I understood about the world and how I was raised was completely shattered, like a glass thrown against the wall. I remember being so angry at both my parents and feeling extreme shame about my family. When both my parents started dating other people, I was extremely uncomfortable and was trying to make sense of being forced to have a relationship with a step-parent while still grieving my parents’ broken marriage.
To this day in my adult life, I have so much anxiety surrounding all my relationships and friendships. I always feel like my relationships are all going to fail. — Olivia, 29, nonprofit fundraiser, Missouri
My mom had just made my sister and I our favorite cinnamon roll breakfast before she and my dad sat us down at the bottom of our stairs and shared they were divorcing. I was 7, my sister 6, and I remember understanding things were sad because my mom cried.
The months and even years that followed, I have no memories of school field trips and few with friends, the only memories I have are adjusting to my new life. Watching my dad’s drinking spiral and the weight I carried trying to help as a scared and small child. Meeting step-parents and them moving in, eventually both getting remarried within months of each other.
The divorce has shaped every aspect of my life. I struggled to commit and trust in relationships, fearing I’d be left. Making everyday decisions trying to please both families even into adulthood; wrestling with who would walk me down the aisle when I got married, how to split time to please everyone at holidays, and to explain it all to my own children. — Faye, 34, stay-at-home mom, Illinois
Thirteen years old. That’s how old I was when my father put his work van in park at the Stop and Shop parking lot and said, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce.” To say this rocked me to my core is an understatement. I felt I had to become the second parent now, and all of the responsibility fell onto my shoulders for my little brother. I was completely numb, and I went into a spiraling depression. I started cutting myself and eventually attempted suicide.
My father dated many different women who I met and stayed in their homes. Most of them did not care for me, but some did. I do miss one in particular. But it didn’t last. It hurt because all I wanted was a stable mother in my life. — Allie, 30, nurse, Florida